Vulnerability and the self-care system

Newborn waterbuck in Welgevonden
I watched the video of Brene Brown’s TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability this week as a friend kindly alerted me to it. The essence of her talk is that we need connection more than anything else and if we do not have it, we are miserable. However, in order to connect wholeheartedly with one another, we need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. The main problem is that if our early caregiving has been inadequate in some way and not taught us how to be vulnerable or indeed that it is safe to be vulnerable, then it is a real bugger to learn how to be vulnerable.

Our psyches are phenomenally resourceful – if vulnerability was not welcomed or simply too dangerous in our early lives, then the psyche develops a precociously mature part that helps us survive and protects us from the world. However, that “Protector” part of us stays in charge into our adult lives and becomes a “Gaoler” to our vulnerable selves, even when it would now be safe to be vulnerable. Donald Kalsched in his brilliant (although technical) book called the Inner Trauma of Childhood – Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit talks about the fact that children develop a “self-care system” that helps them survive unthinkable childhood trauma, but which also later on stops them from being vulnerable when it is required for connection.

Only a sustained, extremely compassionate and loving relationship with a very patient person is enough to dismantle the outdated self-protective, but ultimately dysfunctional, strategies of a person’s self-care system. And usually, only a therapist is that patient and self-sacrificing. It is helpful if the individual concerned can understand the problem and put his or her own “Protector / Gaoler” gently and gratefully out to pasture. It has taken me twenty years to do that, and I had a lot of help along the way.

Research to save the human race

I had the privilege of being invited to attend a day on research at UWC. I was kindly invited by Anita Maurtin-Cairncross from the UWC Human Resources Department to join a workshop which was aimed at developing research capacity. The Rector and Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian O’ Connell started the day by talking about the importance of research. He used the analogy of the Mayan people to emphasise that we as human beings are at risk if we continue unthinkingly along our path, and just like the Mayans, we may be facing extinction unless we can improve the sustainability of our situation. We are 7 billion people (and more every minute) on this planet.

I recently saw a film that showed a picture of our planet from outer space and I was struck by how fragile it looked from out there – this green and blue ball shrouded in strips of cloud just  hanging there in space. And I have been wondering about how long the planet can sustain 7 billion people and more. The earth is an ecosystem, and so surely it requires a certain amount of balance in order to continue sustaining life. Last year, I drove past Hartebeespoortdam. It is a luminous green and it is poisonous to humans. How long before we have made an environment that cannot sustain us anymore? Of course, the environmentalists tell us that we do not have long. What I find so astonishing is that so many of us, myself included (at least some of the time), live as if that is not true. We live as if we can continue consuming resources and producing waste as we are doing at the moment.

We can’t. We need research that tell us why human beings live in denial of glaring truths and we need research that tells us how to help ourselves wake up. I was impressed by the speakers at the UWC day. I think they are genuinely developing research capacity and I learnt a lot from them. I am pursuing my own research with renewed vigour. But I was left with a lingering discomfort because the time for research may be over.